In recent years, Illinois has developed a reputation as one of the most animal-friendly states in the nation for its comparatively progressive animal welfare laws. For example, Illinois statutes include provisions for felony animal cruelty; mandatory reporting of suspected cruelty by veterinarians and other professionals; mental health evaluation and/or counseling for offenders; court orders of forfeiture of abused animals (even prior to conviction); including animals in domestic violence orders of protection; imposing restrictions on future ownership or possession of animals upon conviction; and prohibitions against regulations and determinations of canine viciousness based solely on breed. House Bill 1080--which would do away with the provisions of the Animal Control Act that prohibit breed-specific laws--would be a step backward for Illinois. That’s why I’ll be attending the hearing on the bill at the Agriculture and Conservation Committee meeting on Tuesday.
You might wonder why it’s worth getting all worked up over a proposed bill that doesn’t really do anything. Passage of HB 1080 won’t lead to automatic enactment of breed bans throughout the State because municipalities and counties would have to enact local legislation to impose such bans. Nevertheless, it's important to fight HB 1080 because the existing prohibitory language sends a strong message to Illinois counties and municipalities that Illinois legislators have considered the issue and determined that passing animal control regulations based solely on breed is not an effective approach. And they were wise in doing so.
Often when civic leaders want to impose a breed ban it’s in response to a recent incident in which a citizen was injured by a dog or dogs. It’s a knee-jerk reaction not based on a serious look at what happened and why. No evidence is taken as to whether it really was the dog’s genetic make-up that caused the incident. House Bill 1080 will make it much easier for local governments to pass ill-advised knee-jerk legislation in the wake of a tragic event – at enormous expense and without having any impact on the real problems in their communities.
Why I Oppose Breed Specific Legislation (BSL)
Breed specific legislation is expensive, unenforceable, unfair, and worst of all, does absolutely nothing to address the real cause of human injury caused by dogs. It doesn't even reduce the evil it is intended to address - reducing dog bites.
In most communities, local authorities don’t even have the resources to fully enforce the animal control laws on the books. How realistic is it to think that they could handle the added burden of imposing and enforcing a breed ban? Consider what would be involved: defining what dogs are in the banned class – obtaining proof-positive regarding dogs subject to the ban (DNA testing of suspected dogs); confiscation; impoundment; court battles; euthanasia; additional housing for impounded animals; and additional staff to care for them while their owners fight for their dogs in court.
All of this expense and a breed ban doesn’t even work. In recent years, countries and other governmental bodies have been repealing breed bans because the bans have not produced the desired effect – a decrease in dog bites or dog-related injuries. See http://nationalcanineresearchcouncil.com/canines-issues/breed-bans/
Rather than impose a breed ban in the wake of a terrible tragedy, why not throw the resources that would be needed to enforce such a ban behind enforcing existing animal control laws, or enacting new ordinances that promote responsible dog ownership?
Types of Laws that Promote Responsible Pet Ownership
Most municipalities and counties already have the basics in place: ordinances for registration, Rabies vaccination, leash laws, dangerous and vicious dog laws, and restrictions on the number of dogs permitted per household, etc. Other regulations that could help include . . .
-Spay/neuter provisions. It’s common for a municipality to have a slightly higher registration fee for animals that are unaltered. It makes sense to do so because intact animals are more likely to roam and more likely to ultimately burden the community by producing unwanted litters if not properly taken care of by responsible owners. Research has shown that intact animals and circumstances that arise around them have more to do with the likelihood of a serious dog bite than breed.
-Anti-tethering laws. Many dog bites actually are inflicted by dogs while they are on a chain or tie-out line. Being chained removes the “flight” option from the dog’s fight-or-flight response to a perceived threat. But more importantly, dogs that are living their lives tied-up outside are more likely to be poorly socialized and frustrated. The fact that they’re living that way is evidence that they are not receiving sufficient training, exercise, or mental stimulation.
-Add education requirements to penalties. Anyone who is ticketed more than twice for any violation of animal control laws, and certainly anyone who is determined to own a dangerous or vicious dog, should be required to attend a dog-owner education program of some kind. A basic program could be a single two or three-hour class that touches on the basics, such as the nature of dogs and their basic needs for physical and psychological health. Some violations could warrant mandatory enrollment and attendance at a dog training class (usually one hour a week for 7 weeks). Or in more serious problems, dog owners could be required to have a consultation with a canine behavior specialist. Sure, there would be a cost to enforcing provisions like these, but the cost would be a fraction of the cost of enforcing a breed ban. And more importantly, education programs would actually get at the real cause of dog-related injuries and other problems caused by irresponsible pet ownership.
An even better idea is to offer a discount on dog-registration fees to those owners who can show that their dog has earned the Canine Good Citizenship certificate! Now there’s an idea – actually incentivizing responsible dog ownership!!
A Note About Pit Bulls
Although the current target of breed bans and BSL is almost always the Pit Bull, BSL has been aimed at other breeds in the past, including Bloodhounds, Dobermans, and German Shepherds. Many dogs of these breeds (or mixes thereof) serve as assistance dogs for the disabled, police dogs, search and rescue dogs, war heroes, and wonderful family pets. Do I believe that genetics plays a role in temperament and “personality?” Absolutely. But between the millions of dogs out there that are labeled as “Pit Bull” (often based primarily on appearance) there is probably more genetic variance than similarity. And genes alone don’t make the animal. Life experience has as much or more predictive value for how a dog will turn out than genetics. I know many Pit Bull dogs (and mixes) that are wonderful, gentle, reliable, and even-tempered dogs. I also know many non-Pits that are complete basket-cases.
How a dog turns out in adulthood is determined by many factors, some of which we can’t control. But there is much we can. We can promote responsible breeding practices by discourage puppy mills and backyard breeders who breed animals without regard for the health and temperament of the dogs they breed. We can promote education programs on the way to raise puppies to be well-socialized healthy adult dogs. What won’t help is passing laws that demonize perfectly good dogs and criminalize many fabulous pet owners for the irresponsible acts of a few.
To learn more about BSL, please explore the following online resources:
The National Canine Research Council website: http://nationalcanineresearchcouncil.com/
The ASPCA's Position Statement on Breed Specific Legislation: http://www.aspca.org/about-us/policy-positions/breed-specific-legislation-1.aspx
Living Safely with Dogs website: http://www.livingsafelywithdogs.org/mm_frameset_dbl.htm
American Humane Association's Fact Sheet on Breed Specific Legislation: http://www.americanhumane.org/animals/stop-animal-abuse/fact-sheets/breed-specific-legislation.html
The Meeting of the Agriculture and Conservation Committee will be held Tuesday, February 22nd at 2:00 pm at the Capitoal Building in Springfield. Members of the Ilinois Agriculture and Conservation Committee incude: Lisa Dugan, Patrick Verschoore, Jim Sacia, Jason Barickman, Kelly Burke, John Cavaletto, Mary Flowers, Norine Hammond, Chad Hays, Frank Mautino, Jack McGuire, Donald Moffitt, Brandon Phelps, Dan Reitz, Wayne Rosenthal.
Click HERE for their contact info.
Special thanks to UI Student, Sarah Albert for her assistance in the preparation of this blog entry and materials for Tuesday's meeting.